Remarks to the Colorado Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference: Don’t Stop Believin’ (Aug. 24, 2022)
When I visited the Colorado Water Congress for my first time four years ago, I was asked what my walk-up song would be. My answer: Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. Before discussing my commitment to protect Colorado’s water the right way, let me explain my choice of walk-up song, which relates to the history of water management in Colorado.
Colorado’s history as the Centennial State underpins our resolve that there is no problem we cannot fix together. This approach is rooted in resilience and optimism—values that resonate with me based on my own family history. When my grandparents and mom survived the Holocaust, they were liberated by U.S. Army troops. That part of my family’s history instilled in me a deep appreciation for those who serve our nation. When I asked my grandmother how she continued to believe in a better future even during very dark times, she told me: “It’s easier to believe.” I keep that belief of my grandmother’s at my core—keeping my commitment to hold onto hope and never stop believing.
Even as we face unprecedented drought and suffer the impacts of increased aridification, we must continue to believe that we, as Coloradans and citizens of the West, can work together to find adaptive solutions. That spirit is captured well by Wallace Stegner, who famously stated: “one cannot be pessimistic about the West; this is the native land of hope.” Two central questions we must face and can confront with a spirit of hope: how we manage water within our state and how we do so with our neighboring states. Addressing these questions is among the most important work an Attorney General does, and I take this work personally. That’s why, as long as I’m AG, you can expect to continue seeing me as a regular attendee of Colorado Water Congress conferences.
First, on managing water within Colorado, we have a true north for what responsible water management looks like—it’s the Colorado Water Plan. One tenet of that plan is rejecting buy and dry schemes that suck water and opportunities from agricultural communities and pit communities against one another. This is not a hypothetical. Such a plan was recently proposed, threatening the San Luis Valley. I made sure to quickly and loudly oppose that plan. I was glad that led to other state and federal elected leaders join the cause. And I will continue to fight to keep it from becoming a reality, working with water champions like state Senator Cleave Simpson.
How we manage our water during times of scarcity calls for leadership and hands-on engagement. I take that role very seriously. With respect to avoiding buy and dry schemes, I pledged to work with communities, including those that have 1041 authority as a tool, to ensure that any plans to move water is done with community support, engagement, and sensitivity to the needs of the community. And as with the dangerous San Luis Valley buy and dry plan, I will fight plans that harm local communities.
The right way to manage our water within Colorado is through collaboration and innovation. I spoke at past Colorado Water Congresses about what promising innovative programs look like. On that front, I have pushed for significant increases in investment in water infrastructure, working with state Senator Bob Rankin and others to ensure we make the investments now that will pay dividends down the road. And I recognize that we must do more to develop more effective conservation and re-use strategies; I will continue pushing for such measures.
Second, in terms of managing our relations with other states, the Attorney General’s Office remains the lawyer for the people of Colorado, defending our rights and working to ensure that water agreements work for our state. This means I’ll never be afraid to litigate if necessary to protect Colorado’s water. And to that end, I went to the legislature this past session to get two new lawyer positions to prepare for possible litigation related to the Colorado River Compact. This is some of the most difficult and most important work we do at the AG Office. As we do it, we look to giants in our Colorado water community to guide how we do this key work, including the late Justice Greg Hobbs, for whom we are established a dedicated fellowship in his honor.
As we all appreciate, we are in a fraught situation—negotiating with the Lower Basin States and the federal government on how to manage the reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Meade in the face of historic drought. Some critics said recently that Colorado is not doing enough to address the situation. But the fact remains that we are already far ahead of other Western States—especially those in the Lower Basin. Unlike those Lower Basin states that are now focused on what they will do, Colorado has a track record of taking innovative steps to conserve our water use. In terms of our water management, Colorado is just one of a few states to administer water rights according to its availability. To further aid our water management, we’re doubling down on our ability to determine how much water is available and investing in improved water measurement. Notably, we are working with the other Upper Division Basin States to put to use funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
On top of administering water rights, the Upper Basin has contributed significant volumes of water—beyond what’s required under the Colorado River Compact—to prop up levels in downstream reservoirs. Just recently, the Upper Division Basin States worked with the Bureau of Reclamation, Tribal Nations, water users, and non-governmental organizations, to finalize the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan in May. The 2022 Plan maintains critical elevations at Lake Powell to protect infrastructure and municipal water supplies by sending 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell. This is in addition to the 161,000 acre-feet released from the Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoirs in 2021. The 2022 Plan does not call for any additional releases from Blue Mesa.
Together, these releases total 661,000 acre-feet of water—approximately 15-20% of our annual consumptive use in the Upper Basin. And, just last month, Colorado and the other Upper Division States announced their 5 Point Plan to conserve even more water through 2026 to help protect critical elevations in Lake Powell, which we began to implement this month. But as I said recently to the Colorado River District, these temporary arrangements cannot and will not be sustained. As Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell and I stated before, we need the Lower Basin States to step up and start taking critical measures to conserve water usage that we have long adopted. To drive that action, the Bureau of Reclamation recently announced additional cuts in the Lower Basin in accordance with the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plans. While California holds the largest apportionment of Colorado River water, under these agreements, it is still not subject to mandatory reductions. Nonetheless, Reclamation committed earlier this month to continue to work with California and others to develop plans for additional conservation measures. As this work continues, we will continue to advance the Upper Basin’s 5 Point Plan and stand ready to help all the states in Lower Basin develop plans to adopt new and innovative conservation efforts.
* * *
When I spoke to this group three years ago, I acknowledged the roots of the Colorado Water Congress as a civil society group to build sound water management solutions through conversations rooted in dialogue, true listening, and a spirit of collaborative problem-solving. That was also the topic of my last visit with you, when I brought my friend, Wyoming AG Bridget Hill, to your winter conference. We need that mindset and approach now more than ever.
I appreciate the honor to serve as your Attorney General and will continue to draw inspiration from this community. Your work is more important than ever.